Thursday, January 29, 2009

Away From Her

In the late 1970s, my grandmother (who raised me) started showing signs of “senility.” They were simple signs…but dangerous ones. Things like forgetting she put a tea kettle on the stove. The official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease didn’t come until about 1980. There wasn’t much known about the disease at the time, even though knowledge of the symptoms dates back to the early 1900s. Treatment for the disease did not exist. There was no internet to research. In short, it was a dark journey into the unknown. Alzheimer’s is initially devastating. It is a slow degenerative disease that creates strong emotional responses. Yet it is a numbing process. By the time my grandmother died in 1988, it was a release. Death was a welcome end for a dignified woman who had long left the shell of a body that I visited in the Nursing Home.

When I found Away From Her and realized it dealt with the relationship between two people who were very much in love, I was intrigued at the way the movie would deal with these issues. The funny thing about Alzheimer’s is the lucidity that creeps in from time to time. Names become secondary to general concepts and memories that are thoroughly clouded. My multi-lingual grandmother sometimes slipped into another language, completely losing any chance she had of communicating an idea to me. In Away From Her, this cruel game of juxtaposition between lucidity and confusion can wreak havoc on relationships. It is a gut-wrenching ordeal during the initial stages when your loved one still grasps the concept of people that are important to them.

Away From Her was directed (and adapted to screenplay) by Sarah Polley, based on the book The Bear Came Over The Mountain written by Alice Munro. The story follows the relationship of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie). Their lives become intertwined with another couple experiencing the same conditions, Aubrey (Michael Murphy) and his wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis). Grant and Fiona have shared their best lives. Grant feels guilt for some indiscretions when he was a young college professor. It seems that Grant perceives that his wife Fiona is using her Alzheimer’s to get back at him for his earlier transgressions. The struggle to come to grips with the fact that Fiona will slowly lose her mind, eventually slipping completely away from him, make Grant angry and confused. Grant and Fiona agree that Fiona should enter an assisted care facility while Fiona is still sane enough to participate in the decision. However, Grant must allow Fiona to adjust for thirty days before he is allowed to visit.

When Grant finally comes to see Fiona at the facility he learns that she has made a new friend in Aubrey. Aubrey has become dependant on Fiona’s attention, acting childish whenever she shifts her focus toward Grant. Aubrey appears torn between her commitment to Aubrey, which appears to be a job she has given herself to help maintain her focus and give her direction. Yet Grant perceives this as being supplanted. Aubrey is eventually removed from the facility by his wife causing a severe downturn in Fiona’s condition. Grant finds himself in a situation where his love for Fiona outweighs his sense of displacement. Grant determines that the best course of action is to convince Marian to return Aubrey to the facility. Marian wants something in return. What we end up with is a complex relationship based on needs.

Away From Her does not have a complicated plot. It can be hard to follow at times, until you realize that the film is shifting from the past to the present at irregular intervals. Once I grasped the basic idea, the film became much easier to understand. The story is touching, deep and emotional. For those who have experienced the pain of Alzheimer’s, the emotional impact of this film can be cathartic. The dialogue between the characters has teeth. The conversations are deep and often contain meaning beyond the conversation at hand. The characters experience the pain and joy that all of us experience, making them tangible. It is hard not to care about the outcome in spite of the inevitability of the subject matter. The story is woven together skillfully into an interesting examination of love and loss. It is a powerful thought-provoking story.

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